Getting better at writing is one of the best ways to increase your research output. Yet, we spend very little time learning or practicing writing.
So here are 5 tips to improve your writing:
- Read the style of writing you want to write.
- Write assuming people will skim and skip sections.
- Use subheadings.
- Don’t write like Santa gave you words for Christmas.
- Don’t dismiss reviewer comments as “ignorant” take them as a chance to improve.
One of the things that we all want to do is to improve our thesis writing, if we’re writing our thesis or dissertation but also to improve our journal writing. I’ve been reading Wendy Belcher’s book, Twelve Weeks to Write Your Journal Article, and here are some tips that I’ve got from that book that I think are useful for both journal articles but also thesis as well.
The first is it’s your responsibility to prevent people from writing your or from reading your article in stupid ways. That’s a quote from Wendy’s book. Basically, what she’s saying that section is right in a way that people can quickly understand not only what it is that you’re talking about in terms of your findings but also your assumptions. The kinds of things that you have put in place. That mean the interpretation of your data in a particular way is either correct or incorrect. So, make it really easy to understand both your results as well as your assumptions.
The next thing that Wendy talks about, and I think is useful is to think about how many words you’re using. Ultimately, I would say, I’ve used this previously before for grant writing. A friend of mine, Kathy Aven said to me once, “Don’t write like you got words from for Santa for Christmas”. So, you know basically, don’t expect like you’ve got heaps, and heaps of words. Use them judiciously. Try to express what you can in a short number of words, and a lot of the writing that I see also has a lot of long sentences. So, really think about whether you need that long sentence or not. Sometimes it’s much easier to write in much easier to read I should say, in much shorter sentences. So, if you’re not really sure about whether you’ve used too many words or whether your sentences are too long, I encourage you to read the work aloud. Then think about how it was that you read, and did it sound too long? Did you need to take a pause? Did you need to take a breath? Do those pauses, and breaths are they reflected in the punctuation, and the sentence structure that you’ve used?
The next tip is to think about the different kinds of articles, and documents that you’re reading. So, reading other than writing, reading is probably the best way to improve your writing. But sometimes, if you read too much of the wrong text, your writing can shift in one way or another. So, if you want to get better at creative writing, read creatively written material. If you want to get better at journal article writing, you probably should read journal article writings. And of course, if you want to improve the way you write your thesis or your dissertation, the reality is you’ll need to start reading theses, and dissertations. I’m not talking about reading the entire thing through particularly for theses or dissertations. What I am talking about at least picking up other people’s work and having a flick through reading a little bit of the introduction. Reading the abstract. Reading some of their results chapters and learning and experiencing how they write.
You’ll very quickly learn whether you want to write in the style that they’ve chosen or in a different style to make it more interesting. And on the point of making it more interesting, a couple of things that Wendy talks about that I think are useful, but also should need to be questioned. The first is writing in a newspaper article style. Now, when she talks about putting the all of the important information up front, and that’s primarily what newspaper articles do. And they perhaps can omit some of the detail. So, I totally agree that we don’t want to emit relevant detail, and for theses and dissertations, we might even want to put more detail than you might consider necessary for a journal article because that’s the nature of the work. But I also think the useful thing from newspaper articles is they state the information right up front, right in the middle of your forehead. Sometimes, it’s even included in the title. So, really think about how informative you can be early on. Indeed, Wendy also talks about having informative titles. The other thing that I think is useful is magazine structure. So, Wendy talks about this being a bit of a narrative, and perhaps not overly useful for an academic article. In some ways I agree that that’s not the structure that academic articles are set out in. but I disagree in that it the writing as a result can become formulaic and can become a little bit boring to read. So, think about a magazine article in the sense of the way that it uses narrative, and how you can bring narrative style into your academic writing. The worst thing that will happen is that reviewers will reject the narrative style but not the content of your work. The best thing that will happen is you’ll have an article that is easier to read and who knows, it might get cited more as a result.
Finally, don’t bury the lead. Don’t bury the important information right at the end of your article. You need to be talking about all of the important information as early as you possibly can. That is the way to get people to read your article. And then if they read it, they’re more likely to cite it.
So, there you go. Some tips on improving your journal writing as well as your thesis writing. I hope they help.